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Moscow Traffic Tales: Life on Wheels

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Russia Watch

Moscow Traffic Tales: Life on Wheels

James Brooke
Voice of America
September 19, 2011

With the end of summer holidays and the twilight of the dacha season, Moscow’s roads are filling up again on the weekends. Here are two tales from the traffic front:

On Saturday afternoon, Alyona, a 28-year-old economist friend, was crossing a wide avenue by Universitet Metro station, near the Moscow State Circus. There was not a traffic light, just black and white zebra stripes indicating a pedestrian crossing. On each end of the crosswalk were two blue and white pedestrian crossing signs, now familiar warnings to drivers in Moscow.

Three meters in front of Alyona, a woman was crossing the avenue with her five year old son. An old Zhiguli car sailed through the crossing and knocked her flat on the asphalt. The driver, a free-lance cab driver from the Caucasus, apparently did not know that pedestrians have the right of way over cars in Moscow cross walks.

Within five minutes, a police car was on the scene. Within 10 minutes, an ambulance was there. Within 15 minutes a helicopter touched down. Quite an impressive scene for Alyona, who spent the next three hours calming, consoling, and amusing the traumatized five year old. Finally, his father arrived at the hospital. It seems that his wife would pull through.

Several hours later, John, an American businessman friend, was driving a girl friend to the Metro after a movie. He rumbled down a cobblestone street in Zamoskvoreche. This old, largely residential neighborhood across from the Kremlin is served by the last tramway line in central Moscow. Impatient with a lumbering tram, he wheeled his SUV around the tram, across the tracks and back to the bumpy cobblestones.

Wrong move.

Three traffic police appeared out of the shadows, their yellow vests suddenly reflecting the headlights.

One strode into the street and waved his white baton, signaling the offending driver to pull over.

After a perfunctory salute, he rattled off chapter and verse of the violation: overtaking a tram. His recitation then slowed to stress the final point. Penalty: loss..of…drivers…license… for… 4…to…6…months.

Dokumenti, please.

The policeman started writing down the driver’s particulars on an official form.

John, who speaks reasonable Russian, commented a bit lamely that there are very few tram lines in the United States. The traffic officer suggested that he look up Moscow traffic rules on the internet. A version is posted in English.

More form filling out.

Feigning naiveté, John asked if the ‘straff’ – or fine – can be paid on the spot.

The officer asked John to step out of the car, out of earshot of his date.

“Do you drive much in Moscow?” the officer asked.

“No,” John fibbed.

“Well this is how it works here in Moscow. Traffic fines are paid on the spot.”

“Oh,” said John, feigning surprise. “How much for this violation? 2,000 rubles?”

“No, 5,000 rubles,” the officer said, citing the equivalent of $170.

“Oh,” said John, fibbing again. “I don’t have 5,000. I only have 4,000.”

“That will take care of it,” the officer said. “Go back in the car. Put it in your documents. Like this. Then give me your documents again.”

The next day, John recounted the encounter in detail. He justified the payoff as follows: He broke the traffic rules. He would have had to pay a fine anyway. Instead of paying it to the government, why not pay it directly to the traffic officer? How does the government expect an officer to support a family in the world’s most expensive city on a monthly salary of $1,000?

(On Sept. 21, Russia’s Cabinet approved a 2012 Federal budget that is to double all police and military salaries).

Aside from the fact that not all Americans are Boy Scouts, what lessons can be drawn from Saturday’s traffic tales?

First, as a result of Russia’s oil and gas boom, most of the population of Moscow, now the largest city in Europe, is from somewhere else.

Second, modern Russia has a foot in two worlds. An ambulance helicopters to an accident caused by an unregistered taxi driven by a migrant worker, unfamiliar with the city and the language.

Finally, five blocks from the bright lights of Red Square, traffic police lurk in the shadows, waiting to shake down drivers in order to make up for their poverty level pay.

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